The New England Patriots’ front seven saw some major personnel departures last offseason. Dont’a Hightower opted out due to concerns over the Coronavirus pandemic, while fellow starters Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins left for greener pastures in free agency.
Those departures impacted the Patriots’ entire defense during the 2020 season, with the linebacker positions hit particularly hard. The defensive edge was one part of this development. With outside linebacker Van Noy and move options Hightower and Collins no longer part of the equation, the unit had to rely on John Simon as its top option with a bunch of youngsters lining up alongside him.
The results were not pretty. Simon was unable to perform at a consistent level in his new every-down role, while the inexperience elsewhere showed. New England struggled to properly set the edge in the running game, and to turn quarterback disruption into positive plays.
With his front seven in an unacceptable condition in 2020, Bill Belichick decided to spend big during the ensuing offseason. The result is a much improved unit, and an intriguing training camp battle for playing time and roster spots.
LB Josh Uche, LB Chase Winovich, LB Anfernee Jennings, LB Ronnie Perkins, LB Tashawn Bower, LB Rashod Berry, LB Harvey Langi
Not only will the Patriots have Dont’a Hightower back in the fold at the move linebacker position following his opt-out, they also made some major investments in free agency. Matthew Judon was signed to a four-year deal, while Kyle Van Noy was brought back into the fold after getting released by the Miami Dolphins. Those three project as the top guys on the edge, meaning that the players listed above will either fight for spots in the rotation or on the roster altogether.
Among them, Josh Uche and Ronnie Perkins are the only locks to make the team. Uche was impressive as a rookie last season and appears to be in prime position to make the famous second-year jump; Perkins was just selected in the third round of this year’s draft. Unless injury strikes, both will be on the team come Week 1 even though their eventual roles have to be determined over the course of summer.
As for the others, Winovich and Jennings appear to be in a good position based on their draft statuses. Both were selected in the third round, albeit one year apart in 2019 and 2020. Winovich also was New England’s most productive pass rusher last year, even though he saw some inconsistent playing time throughout the season.
Tashawn Bower, Rashod Berry and Harvey Langi, meanwhile, will have to hope that they can leapfrog Winovich and Jennings on the depth chart. Alternatively, they might have to convince the coaching staff that they are more valuable to the overall composition of the roster than an additional off-the-ball linebacker, for example.
The deciding factors
Discipline: New England asks its edge defenders to not only attack the quarterback from various techniques — ranging from the 3 on the outside shoulder of the guard to the 9 split wide over the tight end — but also to set the edge versus the run. Being disciplined in both aspects and not sacrificing one for the sake of the other is a key here, and could end up being a deciding factor when it comes to making the roster or practice squad.
Awareness: The Patriots’ edge defenders also need to be able to properly read their keys and react to them. Does the offensive line use a zone or man blocking scheme? Is the running back getting the football or faking a hand-off? Are there any pre-snap signals being sent on the other side of the line of scrimmage? Playing defensive edge in New England’s scheme is reactionary to a part, and players need to be able to make the right decisions based on what is happening in front of them.
Technique: Fighting off blockers is essential to being successful as a front-seven defender, and it all starts with technique — from footwork to hand usage to pass rushing moves. The more polished of a technician a player is, the better suited he is to perform consistently both as a pass rusher or when asked to hold his ground against offensive linemen in the running game. Kyle Van Noy was consistently impressive when it came to technical side of playing the position, now his successors need to develop in similar fashion.
Versatility: In the past, the Patriots regularly used their edge defenders in other spots as well — be it off the ball as move linebackers or inside the formation as de facto defensive tackles on obvious passing downs. Being able to line up in numerous spots and techniques could therefore also help a player carve out a role on the team. The same goes for special teams: Chase Winovich saw regular action in the kicking game in 2020, for example.
Coverage: When the Patriots moved from a 4-3-based defense to one built around 3-4 principles in the summer of 2019, they also slightly altered the responsibilities on the edge: players no longer needed to just push the pocket or play contain, but also drop back into coverage every now and then. While the ability to hang with tight ends or running backs will not make or break a player’s chances at making the team, it could be another factor tied into the versatility aspect mentioned above.
As noted above, both Josh Uche and Ronnie Perkins are locks to make the squad even though their eventual roles do not appear to be set in stone just yet. Uche will likely serve as a rotational pass rusher and as such be part of the top-four outside linebackers alongside Matthew Judon and Kyle Van Noy.
That fourth spot appears to be up for grabs. Even though Perkins seems like a candidate and could very much earn it with a strong camp and preseason performance, Chase Winovich winning it would not be a surprise. Yes, he was suspiciously absent during mandatory minicamp and had his ups and downs last year, but he is still an able pass rusher and valuable special teams presence.
With the likely top five set — Judon, Van Noy, Uche, Winovich, Perkins — the question becomes whether or not a sixth or even seventh player will be added to the equation. Given the comparative lack of depth in the off-the-ball department, New England could do just that, especially with move linebacker Anfernee Jennings part of the mix as well.
Jennings struggled as a rookie last year, but a normal offseason and some preseason experience could help him turn the corner and become a more productive player in the system. He has the versatility the team likes, and if he shows some signs of progress he should very much make the team over the likes of Tashawn Bower, Rashod Berry and Harvey Langi.
Those three, meanwhile, need to look better than they did throughout their careers so far in order to have a chance. Bower spent time on the active roster last year, but he does not appear to be much more than a depth player at this stage in his career; Berry was a member of New England’s practice squad in 2020 but he saw only limited action; Langi returns to New England and could compete for a spot on the team via special teams rather than his defensive contributions.